After coming to prominence as part of Hollywood’s ‘Frat Pack’ in the early noughties, James Franco has supplemented his work as an actor with a determined approach to becoming a prolific director. He’s clearly putting the work in – after taking part in an Of Mice and Men production on Broadway in 2014, he’s since directed no less than eight feature films, many of which are book adaptations. The work hasn’t been consistent in quality, but his latest, In Dubious Battle, shows an emerging comfort with developing a complex story for the big screen.
Based on the first of American author John Steinbeck’s ‘Dustbowl Trilogy’, In Dubious Battle is a rallying cry for worker’s rights, set in the impoverished California of 1933. A young and optimistic man called Jim (Nat Woolf) joins an unspecified political group – interpreted by some readers of the original novel as the American Communist Party – and is taken under the wing of experienced comrade Mac (James Franco). The two travel to a remote farm to galvanise tired and underpaid workers into striking for action.
It’s not surprising that Franco took on the first ever adaptation of this lesser known Steinbeck novel in the current climate. With political uncertainty at a high right now, this film takes us back to the spread of an imperfect movement that required sacrifice and solidarity. The film definitely puts that political passion and determination in its heart, but wisely shows us the pitfalls and blind spots that come with it. Jim, our main viewpoint throughout the film, loses his youthful naivety with something approaching a cold fury, just as Mac has before him. People who don’t deserve it get hurt for the cause, questioning the importance of that increased wage that they’re fighting for. It’s an important decision, since this film could easily simply swing just one way, glorifying the preferred side.
In terms of the performances, Woolf excels himself through charting Jim’s journey through pain and lost hope. Already a stand out in his work in screen adaptations of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, in this film he marks himself as a rising star to watch. Vincent D’Onofrio also has a crucial role as London, leader of the workers, whose inner indecision and kindness clashes effectively with his bear-like figure that could easily take control with a swipe of his hand. The score by German composer Volker Bertelmann (also known as Hauschka), is wonderful at ramping the tension and fits in perfectly with the simmering anger of the workers.
That isn’t to say that In Dubious Battle is consistently strong however – in its quest to look good, the film sometimes kits actors out in inexplicable costumes. Selena Gomez, who portrays Lisa, London’s daughter, is often dressed in a crisp white dress that wouldn’t be unusual at a polo club, while many others wear similarly blinding shirts. It’s a nitpicky point to notice, but it’s hard not to in amongst surroundings that are supposed to be rough and tired. There are also a few inexplicable cameos which only serve to distract from the reality of the film – see if you can spot the most obscure one (hint: you’ll probably only figure it out from his unmistakeable voice!).
There have been stronger adaptations of Steinbeck’s novels, but In Dubious Battle offers a solid first adaptation to a lesser known text. At times it lacks consistently in its period details, which can be highly distracting, but in the film’s favour, it makes a heartfelt attempt at portraying the original message of the book.
In Dubious Battle will be released in the first week of August on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital platforms.